A Trip to the Ballet

The last time I went to the ballet, I was probably about ten. My mom took me to a New York City Ballet production of Petrouchka, and I don’t remember much about the event except wondering what made the ballerina’s cheeks so red!

We’re really kind of film/music people around here… I think dance is beautiful, and I’m always knocked out by the graceful strength of the dancers, but I’ve never seen many performances, or learned very much about it. Meanwhile, Ben’s interest in music started young and shows no sign of abating. He’s got a bin full of instruments, as well as two guitars, a ukulele, and a mandolin. He studies the fabulous San Francisco symphony kid’s website. And of course, we read books about music all the time, from Animal Orchestra, to Meet the Orchestra, to The Philharmonic Gets Dressed to Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. He even has a 4,000 entry illustrated encyclopedia of music that Tony found at the used book store (Ben reads it in bed).

And yet, we still haven’t been to the symphony! But we recently tagged along with a friend who’d bought a block of tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s special kid-focussed production of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. We got to watch students from the Ballet School warm up on stage while a retired dancer narrated their every movement; we got to watch an excerpt from the vivacious dance, Blue Rose; and finally, a full production of their world premiere Firebird.

Of course, Ben and I had done our homework. I’d found a picture book version of The Firebird, and we’d been reading it nightly for a week. I’d worried that maybe the story, with its demons and deathless king, would trouble Ben’s dreams, but he seemed unfazed.

We arrived early, in time to really study the beautiful performance space. We walked down to look at the orchestra pit, to note which instruments were already in place (piano, harp, drums), and we got to say hello to the trumpeter when he walked in to put his score on his music stand.
Then the lights flickered, we took our seats, and Ben and his friends watched rapt as the dancers moved through their warm-ups, then Ben leaned back and let Blue Rose wash over him.

When The Firebird began at last, I suddenly realized that Ben has never seen a live-action performance of any kind. The few movies he has seen are animated; he has never seen real people pretending to be characters. And he didn’t know quite what to make of it. He moved on to my lap, a little worried about Prince Ivan when Kashchei captured him. “Is that man real? Is he going to be ok?” And he still hasn’t stopped talking about the scene of Kashchei’s death, which I found beautifully, subtly staged (a flashing light and a brief black-out), but frightened poor Ben speechless. “He’s ok,” I kept whispering into his ear, “It’s just a story. It’s all pretend.”

He’s still at the stage where the line between real life and pretend is a little fuzzy, and it’s an interesting stage to witness. I want him to know and appreciate the difference between real life and stories, of course, but I also — almost even more — want him to be so moved by stories that they feel real. I think I’ll be a little sad when pretend doesn’t have the power it does now.


  1. Libby says:

    This is a great story, Caroline. It has me wondering if we got either kid to live performances that early. Mariah saw a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta at about 3, I guess–but what I mostly remember about that is that she couldn’t sit still and just spun out before it was over. I’m mulling over the meaning of being moved by books right now, myself, so this came at the right time.

  2. Daphne Powell says:

    I’m impressed by Ben’s interest in the whole event, before and during. I think live performance can be very confusing for young kids. And it is hard for them to sit still! It sounds like Ben would really enjoy a low-key music class, where he could enjoy making music and trying out different instruments without worrying about the technique at this point.